Bridging the Gap: Neurotypical Advice for My Neurodivergent Child​

Written by: Brenna Thompson 

We all have those family members and friends who always feel the need to offer their “wisdom”—even when it hasn’t been asked of them. No matter how well their tips have worked for themselves and others, we know parenting isn’t a one size fits all. Parenting a neurodivergent (ND) child makes that statement ring even more true.

We first suspected my oldest would be on the autism spectrum when he was around two years old. He was very particular as a toddler. Toys had to be lined up, and rather than playing with them, he put them right back in their containers to begin the lining up process all over again. He has never been a fan of change, and sometimes even minor shifts would spark some super big emotions. In the midst of these emotional showers, my husband and I have heard it all: spank him, give him something to really cry about, and my personal favorite—you’re the parent.

My initial reactive thought is, yes, I am the parent. Why, then, am I getting advice for my child that I didn’t even ask for? Despite my irritation, I must step back and remind myself that often there is a big gap between the way the brains work of those giving the advice and the brain of my child. As a parent of a ND child, I know what triggers him. I know how to calm him down, and I’ve learned useful strategies to discipline in ways that prevent meltdowns.

To be clear, I do not begrudge anyone of their opinions on parenting; however, I do not ask for them either. As a ND mama with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who has a ND eight-year-old with autism and ADHD, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about navigating the unsolicited advice of family and friends. I want to bridge the gap between us by explaining what works for us rather than burning bridges by expecting them to just know or stay out of it.

I am all for advocating for my child, but I am also a fan of spreading awareness of how others can help. I’ve had people ask me “what’s wrong” with my son. While I know that wasn’t meant as an insult, I do want people to understand that the way they phrase things can hurt. I also want them to understand that just because some children are different, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them.

As a mama who gets all the unsolicited advice from neurotypical (ND) family and friends—and sometimes strangers—for my ND child, here are the top three lessons I’ve taken away over the last eight years:

1. Breathe before responding. The advice given can sometimes be inappropriate, but often, they truly mean well. Deep breaths help a lot. I’ve had a few strangers give unsolicited advice as well. My son likes his hair long and tends to hide behind it when he’s in uncomfortable social situations. I had an older man, complete stranger, tell me in the grocery store that I needed to cut my son’s hair because “boys aren’t supposed to have long hair.” I didn’t take as big a breath as I should have before answering and my retort was more rude than I would have liked, but I will always stand up for my child.

2. After taking that breath, advise them back. Your child counts on you to advocate, so when someone tries to teach you how to “handle” certain situations, explain to them what does and doesn’t work for you. I used to look at this as “I shouldn’t have to explain myself” situations, but how can we expect them to understand our children if no one takes time to explain to them why their advice won’t work? Sometimes, explaining what you’ve tried can give them insight, and this may even give them ideas on how to react if similar situations happen again in their presence.

3. If they are persistent, you don’t have to listen to them, and neither do your kids. How I typically handle these situations is to be upfront and honest. If they continue to offer advice, I normally get blunt and tell them in as nice of a way as I can that I don’t want their advice. I have had instances where they then direct their conversation toward my child and begin giving instructions. I nip this in the bud quickly and then explain to my child that it’s also not okay for others to tell him what to do, especially if those situations make him uncomfortable. It is okay to respectfully tell others, “I’m his mama, and I’ve got this.”

If you are a parent to a ND child, and you struggle with handling the differences between yourself and family members or friends who mean well but constantly offer instruction and strategies, know you aren’t alone. Being a parent is hard work regardless of whether your child is ND or NT, and unsolicited advice will come regardless. Rather than disrupting your peace and that of your family, try using these moments to teach and advocate for not just your child but for all ND children.